Jim Hall dies at 83; guitarist influenced generations of jazz players

As a musician in the 1950s and '60s, Jim Hall made the guitar a prominent part of jazz for decades. Hall died Tuesday at 83.
(Metronome, Getty Images)

Jim Hall, a jazz guitarist, composer and arranger whose subtle, lyrical playing style was favored by such iconic jazz artists as Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond and Ella Fitzgerald, has died in New York. He was 83.

Hall died in his sleep Tuesday at his apartment in Greenwich Village, according to his wife, Jane.

Although he had been in poor health, Hall made music up to the end with the same creative enthusiasm that enlivened his seven-decade career. As recently as a month ago, he performed with his trio in a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, and he was planning a tour of Japan with Ron Carter in January.

For decades, Hall’s playing had a powerful impact on young players, with guitarists John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell noting their fascination with Hall’s work, and on occasion performing with him.


“Mr. Hall has a sound as recognizable as the voice of a friend,” critic Terry Teachout wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “His floating, fine-grained tone is smooth and edgeless, his wide-spaced harmonies subtly oblique. Modest and soft-spoken, he has inspired two generations of jazz musicians with his vast harmonic knowledge and restless musical curiosity.”

In 1992, Guitar Player magazine selected 25 guitarists “who shook the world.” The list included such legendary figures as Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck. Among the rock-oriented names, there was also the unlikely, but thoroughly justified, presence of Hall, the only jazz guitarist in the group.

“Though he has been compared to everyone from Charlie Christian to Django Reinhardt,” wrote Leonard Feather in The Times in 1994, “Hall has long since developed his own persona, characterized by a sensitive, often subdued sound and by uniquely ethereal compositions.”

James Stanley Hall was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on Dec. 4, 1930. By the time he was 10, his parents had split up and his mother had moved Hall and his brother to Cleveland. He was drawn to music at an early age, largely influenced by the his uncle Ed, who was a country-style guitarist and singer. His grandfather was a violinist, his mother a pianist.

Hall’s mother, pleased by his interest in music, bought him a guitar, and he began to take music lessons. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing on a professional level with local Cleveland bands.

Hall graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1955 with a degree in music theory. In the late ‘50s he moved to Los Angeles, where he became an original member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. In 1957, he released his first recording as a leader, “Jazz Guitar,” and joined the innovative Jimmy Giuffre Trio.

Like most jazz artists, Hall was soon drawn to the musical appeals of New York City. Moving there in the ‘60s, he began a sequence of now legendary musical associations.

The 1962 album, “The Bridge,” paired Hall’s laid-back, lyrical style with Rollins’ muscular tenor work in the iconic saxophonist’s return to public performance after a lengthy hiatus. It was one of many memorable items in Hall’s extensive discography.


Arriving on the national music scene at a time when the guitar was primarily being heard in the rapidly emerging rock ‘n’ roll of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hall had a warm, linear, melodically oriented style that quickly established him as an important new jazz voice on his chosen instrument. Taking the guitar beyond its characteristic role as a rhythm section support, Hall positioned it as one of the prominent jazz voices, for decades setting high standards for innovation and creativity.

“A master of understatement, a player dedicated to the proposition that music should be a dialogue among equals,” wrote Andrew Gilbert in the San Jose Mercury News, “Hall is one of jazz’s most respected improvisers, an artist who wields his guitar like a paintbrush, shaping and shading each note to achieve just the right hue and texture.”

Hall’s own perspective on his playing encompassed even broader influences. And, aside from his affection for the playing of such rare jazz guitar predecessors as Charlie Christian, it was usually saxophonists and instrumentalists he described as having a vital impact on his music.

Speaking with The Times in 1992, Hall mentioned his fondness for the playing of “Lester Young, Ben Webster and especially Paul Gonsalves in Ellington’s band. Art Tatum. Count Basie’s band. Bill Evans. And classical music. Bartok was my hero when I was in school, and Stravinsky and Mozart. I probably listen to Stravinsky as much as jazz now.”


Hall’s fascination with classical music influenced his own compositional activities, which rarely received the same attention as his guitar playing. But his recordings “By Arrangement” and “Textures” showcased his extensive skills as a composer and arranger.

Hall, who received the NEA Jazz Masters award in 2004, is survived by his wife, Jane, and his daughter, Devra Hall Levy, the widow of bassist and NEA Jazz Master John Levy.